On May Day – a Salute to Kristine Bartlett

Kristine Bartlett recently toured the country speaking about her work in aged care and the landmark legal victory for pay equity. As part of International Workers Day, we celebrate this working class hero’s tireless campaigning for equal pay in New Zealand.

Twenty three years ago Kristine Bartlett started work in aged care on $9 an hour.

  • Her work is shift work and it is hard work that requires compassion, responsibility, and care.
  • On a daily basis Kristine must meet the NZ standards set out in a 17 page document. She must ensure that patients are monitored; that there are no accidents; that things run on time.
  • Aged care workers do a lot of the work that Registered Nurses once did, for example palliative care – carrying out daily cares; laying out the deceased body as the loved ones would like to see them; looking after the family; then carrying on to care for the next patient. However the care workers are given no opportunity for debriefing.

Despite the responsibilities and personal costs, pay and conditions in aged care remain abysmal.

  • At Kristine’s work place there are no penal rates
  • Staff are only entitled to 5 sick days per year
  • Staff often get sick – it tends to go around the place – but taking sick leave is uncommon as they only get 5 days a year, and often are hassled and bullied not to, for example, “you have to give at least 6 hours’ notice”. Consequently they bring more sickness into the workplace.
  • Basic health & safety is ignored putting staff and patients at risk. For example when staff are off and there aren’t enough staff to safely care for patients the manager doesn’t call in more workers or help out themselves.
  • Workers are poor; the wage isn’t enough to live on; they can’t afford cars or even bus or train fare and often walk to work in the rain, and often have no food.

Despite repeatedly banging on her boss’s door, Kristine’s wage is now only $14.88/hr. The dustman who collects the bagged continence products that she has carefully lifted and rolled the patient to change after cleaning and monitoring skin condition and reassuring the patient all the time, gets paid $6 an hour more than her! The bosses tell her there’s a squeeze on, the government’s not funding, times are tough; every time.

However profits are rife in the aged-care industry. The New Zealand government pours billions of dollars into the industry every year and a lot of the risk is under writ, so companies are fairly free to buy and sell. New Zealand’s beloved son Richie McCaw along with mates Dan Carter and Kieran Reid are among present and former All-Blacks who have invested in the aged-care sector and experts say it is likely to have been a savvy move. According to Craigs Investment Partners, shares in aged-care companies had been the top performers over the past 10 years with returns of 35 percent in the case of Ryman Healthcare. It seems that there is plenty of money to go round but mostly it is going into shareholders’ pockets. How do they get away with this?

  • Aged care workers are predominantly women and are some of the lowest paid workers in New Zealand, and unionisation is low, at around 20%.
  • Kristine is often told, “if you got a better education you would get better pay”. But aged-care is a career of choice for Kristine. She loves it, she loves people, she values the work she is doing; however that doesn’t mean she should get paid less for it.
  • Aged care falls under the gender stereotype of ‘women’s work’ and with the stereotype comes the low value necessitated by an economy that profits at all levels from work typically done by women – caring, raising children, feeding and clothing family members so they can return to work the next day. Work that is essential to an economy and functioning workforce that if it was recognised for the value it adds, would represent a significant dent in private profits and national wealth.

In June 2013 the Service & Food Workers Union (SFWU) brought a pay equity case to Employment Court on behalf of Kristine and won. This was a historic win for pay equity. The decision was made on the basis that it was likely that she was receiving less pay for doing work that was different but of equal value. The decision was appealed by the employer but reserved. The employer took the case further but in December 2014 Kristine won the case at the Supreme Court and any further appeals were declined. The next step is to argue for what the wage should be as benchmarked against a comparator occupation. The Employment Court will shortly determine the Pay Equity principles, then determine the rate of pay for Kristine Bartlett’s Equal Pay Act case. It is hoped that the judgement relating to setting principles will be out by August. The PSA has joined the pleadings, with SFWU and NZNO, and is working on cases for disability support workers and social workers.

The new employment laws which came into effect March 6 this year will make it harder to translate Kristine’s win into the pay jolt that it signals. The union now wants to represent the wider body of aged care workers but the workers need to be signed up. Change can happen but union membership needs to be higher. SFWU and New Zealand Nurses Union (NZNO) are campaigning for all care workers to join their union and put the workforce in the strongest position possible to fight for their biggest pay rise ever.

Just this past month, we’ve seen how powerful and effective unions can be. Super exploitative zero hours contracts – punitive contracts that demand full availability but offer no guarantee of hours – have all but become a dead letter because of Unite Union’s actions and campaigns.

Campaigning for pay equity is in all our interests. Low pay for women causes child poverty and ill health. Limited financial independence can cause women to remain in abusive relationships. The gender differential causes strife in the subtle and explicit ways it underlines gender roles, limiting career options for women, driving men to identify as the breadwinners and failures if they are not, and introducing the frustration and dissatisfaction that gender oppression and gender-assigned behaviours and roles bring when they are thrust upon relationships.

In New Zealand, twice as many women than men are on ‘low pay’ (less than $15.30 per hour); on average, women are paid 14% less than men; Māori and Pacific women are paid 20-30% less than men; nine government departments have more than a 20% gender pay gap; four of New Zealand’s district health boards have a gender pay gap of 30-40%. This significant pay differential essentially allows employers to deny claims for pay increases in many occupations based on the relativity that exists with the low-paid women-dominated occupations, driving down wages across the board. Just as it did in the 1970s, the future of male workers lies in fighting with women for their mutual individual interests.

Better pay, and recognition of the value of the roles and responsibilities of aged care workers, is a healthy and necessary move for a better and healthier society. Campaign for aged care workers this International Workers Day and support the union campaign All the Way for Equal Pay: